A Conversation with Director David Ray

On Friday, Feb. 4 two members of CV Student Media were able to interview Director David Ray from the Douglas County School Board prior to the school board meeting that evening. This is a transcription of that interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Could you give us a summary of the situation concerning Superintendent Wise?

“We’re getting ready to meet tonight for a special meeting and the agenda topics are really two fold. One is where we are with the state of the board currently and the state of the district and then there’s another topic on the agenda tonight about looking at the superintendent’s contract and any further direction. That’s what’s going on tonight at five o’clock. What’s led up to that has been; first of all, some conversation that a couple of directors have had with the superintendent and they communicated to him that they were desiring a different direction for the district and as well as a different leader for superintendent. That’s what really started this process. We were notified about that after two of them had already had that conversation with the superintendent and that triggered me to contact him and the other directors. Three of us, on Monday night, held a public conversation and just went public with what these two directors told us they had done. Basically, they had told the superintendent that they wanted the superintendent to consider resigning otherwise they would move forward with looking to replace him with a different leader. So, that’s kind of the quick summary of where we are. Obviously this has had other impact, as you guys know. [There was] the sickout that occurred yesterday. Teachers were upset about this and other decisions the board members have made. So that’s where we are; a lot of community concern right now.”


What was the board’s reception of the teachers’ sick out?

“It really was pretty separate from what we were doing. I don’t think any of us ever feel that it’s a good tactic for us not to give students instructional time. You guys have had so many disruptions already and so I don’t think any of us condone that it’s okay for us to not have a day for students to be learning. What happened yesterday, though, was something that this group of people had been planning even before the news about the superintendent. They were upset with how the board was looking to change the equity policy and that’s why the teachers were looking to have a sick out to begin with. They really wanted the board to step back and not do that because as I do, they felt very strongly that our educational equity policy is exactly what we need to insure that all students are getting what they need to be successful. So the reaction of the board was [it was] unfortunate that our teachers had to go to that drastic measure to get the attention of the board, but we certainly understand their frustration [and] that they feel like they are not being heard.”


Do you feel that they will be heard?

“I certainly think it had an impact — all the news, all the media coverage. I think that really causes all of us on the board to get together and say ‘we really need to take a step back and really seek to understand what it is that our teachers are trying to tell us.’ Unfortunately, we don’t have what’s called a collective bargaining agreement with our district. If [teachers] had a collective bargaining agreement, it typically means that they have more influence in how decisions are made. They don’t have that agreement in our district like they do in other districts, so there’s a fifty-fifty chance in terms of how this board receives that input. [Board members] don’t necessarily have to listen because we don’t have that collective bargaining agreement in place. I’m hopeful, but it’s disappointing to know that really this board can still do what it wants to do, regardless of what happened yesterday.”


Do you think teachers should have influence in the way this district is run?

“Absolutely. I will say that I felt like we were on the right track. I’ve been on the board for six years. I really felt like the past four years we really did have that allowance for teachers to be heard. We made sure an employee council was established that represented all the different employee departments and they met regularly and they gave us feedback regularly about policy changes, so I felt like we were doing well there. I think teachers absolutely are the ones who directly impact what you all experience in terms of your education and we have to listen and they have to be influential in guiding the district in what’s best for kids. Having been an educator myself, a principal in our school district, I have a real passion that educators ought to be leading the way as opposed to being told how to do the things they are trained to do.”


What changed in the last two years that you feel changed the direction of the district?

“There’s this little thing called COVID. That kind of threw us all out of wack, I think. Because, how do you continue to deliver an experience to students when we’re getting all these directives in terms of what’s safe and what’s healthy. The last two years have been tumultuous because of that, but I still felt like even the last two years, all seven board members had the common thread of feeling like public education has got to be protected, we’ve got to make sure that our teachers are being taken care of. When the election occurred that brought on four new board members, I have not worked with them long enough to know really what is their desire in terms of the direction for our district. They keep saying that it’s different than what it was prior to the election, and that’s what’s not clear — what do you want to do differently? Our focus was on academic excellence, it was on making sure we have outstanding educators and staff in place, it was about collaborating with our community, it was about fiscal responsibility, you know? Making sure your learning environment is safe and so I guess what we don’t at this point is what this new board majority, what their mission is. So, that’s what kind of went awry the last two years, and then even more so now because there’s a majority board that really haven’t been very clear about what their direction is.”


How does having a majority board impact the work environment and what the Board of Education has been doing?

“I think it makes it very difficult, I think, for us to have collaborative relationships. I mean, to a certain degree I felt like we were doing okay with that. Even though there were certain decisions being made that were a majority vote, meaning there were four against three, on certain issues but there have been some votes where all seven of us have voted the same, so I was hopeful that our working relationship would continue to be healthy, but I think this last week has really proven differently. I think it’s going to be very hard for us to restore collaborative conversation when we definitely don’t even have any trust that each person is after this for the right reason, if that makes sense. When you ask how it’s impacted our working relationship, I think trust — there really isn’t much trust for each other right now. Before we could be different, we could have different perspectives on things, we could have fierce conversations, and we could still trust each other. But now, I don’t know that I can trust that what you’re doing, you’re doing it in public or it seems like it’s being done behind the scenes.”


What role do you think political ideology has played in that deterioration of trust?

“There are a lot of political ideologies that are surfacing in terms of some of the beliefs the four new board directors have. Personally, speaking for myself, I’m a registered unaffiliated voter, so I don’t have a political allegiance or even a political affiliation to a certain party, but we’ve certainly seen that even the group that helped campaign for these board directors have some very strong connections to some very conservative political organizations that really seems to be that that is who they’re trying to please, which is unfortunate because the code of ethics for us is that we don’t align ourselves with anybody except being willing to have conversation and listening to everyone before we make a decision, but um, as you have seen in Douglas County there’s definitely a lot of political polarization and I do think it really makes it more difficult for us.”


How do you think the community feels like political polarization — not just the students, but the parents and general community as well?

“If you could see my email inbox right now you would see how they’ve responded because it is overflowing and I would tell you that the majority of the emails we are getting are very much in favor of us doing our board business in public, making sure that Superintendent Wise has every opportunity to be successful, many many are saying ‘please don’t go rash and fire a superintendent before you’ve even given him a chance to demonstrate what he’s about.’ There are some members of the community that want to say ‘you guys are adults, so start acting like it and quit this in-fighting.’ We get some of those responses, too, but I think overall our community has been appreciative that at least we are trying to do this in public. We’re not trying to do this in the back room or underground and we’re trying to keep this as public as possible, even though it’s painful because of the divisiveness of the board. I think they’re understanding, but they’re weary of us not doing what we should be doing so that you guys can be getting the quality education that you need.”


Do you believe that the members of the board who tried to remove Superintendent Wise took the right steps to do so?

“I would say, emphatically, no. I do not think it was handled correctly. When you have an employee — and the superintendent is our only employee we supervise and give feedback to — but when you have an employee you have performance concerns about, you first notify them of those performance concerns, you don’t skip that step and all of the sudden come and say ‘you know what, we think we want you to resign or be prepared to be terminated.’ The first thing you say is ‘here are my concerns; when you did this it concerned me, when you did this it concerned me.’ You give the employee the opportunity first to either correct the concerns or that employee might say ‘you’re expecting me to do things that I can’t do, so it makes sense for me to resign.’ But, I think that’s the critical step that was skipped. There was no proper notification to him that there was any concern. Unfortunately, with the way things sit with the board, the entire board has to do that, it can’t just be two people who come along and say ‘we have these concerns, we think you should resign.’ It really has to be the entire board that has that conversation with our employee so he can see that there are four people who believe this, there’s three people who believe this and then he can choose what to do in response. I think that was the biggest step. And then, of course, because we’re elected officials we have to have these conversations in public. And even if it’s a performance concern we can go into what’s called executive session and just talk to the superintendent privately, with the seven of us. That has to be done in public, where we say ‘we’re going to have a private conversation with our employee, the superintendent, about his performance.’ That’s required before we can even do that. So, those are the missteps that have occurred that have really caused this situation to escalate.”


How do you feel going into the meeting the board is having tonight?

“For me, it’s mostly about making sure that we are not moving to action prematurely. My plan is to make it real clear that I do not believe that we are in a position to take any formal action on anything. We need to stay in the study mode of sharing information, having discussions and that should be our only task tonight; to get an understanding of where we are, where we want to head. We should not be taking any formal action, I am very much against that because I think it’s premature. So, that’s my approach tonight, to just say ‘we need to have dialogue,’ and I welcome that. It’s okay to feel differently from what I do. I have no problem with that, but we need to have these conversations in public together so that we can at least lay the foundation and then if we want to we can say ‘our next steps are we need to evaluate our superintendent and then at our next meeting, let’s be prepared to evaluate our superintendent and how that’s going to be done.’ I think for me, the approach is to slow it down, to take a breath and see if we can at least have a conversation about where are we right now and where do we think we need to go next, is pretty much my stance right now.”


What do you think is going to happen at the board meeting tonight and what do you think the next steps will be knowing the majority of the board wants the superintendent to resign? Do you think there will be a change of opinion after the protesting that occurred?

“When I look at our agenda and I see that we have an agenda item that says ‘superintendent contract and future direction of the district,’ and it’s an action item, where we’re supposed to take formal action, for me that means that yes, there is a possibility that the majority board will say ‘we’re voting to terminate the superintendent’s contract.’ I think that’s possible. I think that’s highly, highly inappropriate and I’d certainly vote against that, but my hope is that they will say ‘wow, yesterday there sure were a lot of people that said we need to take a step back and we may rethink what we’re doing.’ My hope would be that they would leave an impression on this board to think twice and slow this down and do this in multiple steps, not in one meeting tonight. To be frank, you have four people that are the majority and they can vote however they choose without us, regardless of how the other three people feel. It is a very concerning situation that we’re in tonight.”


On the chance that Superintendent Wise is not asked to resign, how would you feel?

“Mr. Wise has been a tremendous leader in our district for 26 plus years, and I think he has done an admirable job at trying to navigate a lot of crises in our district, so I absolutely believe that would be the right thing to do. He’s only been in the position for barely a year, so I would absolutely be in agreement that we should not even put that on the table. What we should put on the table is ‘what we know now about our district, how are students performing, what we need to do to get better’ and focusing on that. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, as opposed to throwing threats and throwing people into this place of intimidation where they figure that no matter what they do they think someone is going to attack. I absolutely believe the best course of action is to not even go there and just focus on what our district needs to do to focus on what’s best for kids.”


What do you think the impact of his resignation would be?

“I’ve been in the district for 33 years — either as a principal or as a board member. I went through a similar crisis about 12 years ago when there was an abrupt pressure to have a superintendent resign and the impact is huge. What happens is our teachers really say ‘This is not the place for me. [With] this kind of upheaval, this kind of insecurity, this kind of treatment; I don’t think I can stay here as an employee anymore.’ And so what starts to happen is this ripple effect where you see our teachers say ‘I’m going to go to Cherry Creek or some place where they have their act together, and that’s what is terrifying to me, because that’s what happened twelve years ago. We had a major exodus of teachers and principals because of a similar crisis to what we’re in right now. I think our community will just continue to be more and more divisive because people are drawing lines and saying ‘you’re this or you’re this and if you’re this you’re not my friend,’ and I think it has this ripple effect into our community, too. I’m really heartbroken in so many ways that we’re even in this crisis, and I just really hope that we can navigate it with integrity so that we don’t have that kind of impact on our teachers and on our community.”


How far do you think that ripple effect would impact DCSD’s ability to attract more teachers?

“I remember several years ago when there was a superintendent who was making employees feel oppressed and not valued, universities would say ‘don’t apply to Douglas County, because it’s a mess’ and I say that heartbroken, because when I was a principal, this was the district everyone wanted to come to, not one they were avoiding. It impacts recruitment because they say ‘gosh, I don’t want to be there if these kinds of crises are happening this frequently.’ I think this could really be a pivotal moment to say ‘are we going to decide like we did at one time to make this the best district possible, or is this going to be where people stay away because there’s too much chaos?’ I’m hopeful that we get through this and people will see ‘they’ve had hard times, they’ve navigated it as best they could, and now they’re back to where they should’ve been; just focused on what’s best for students.’”


Do you think other members of the board feel the same pressure to protect DCSD’s future?

“I know the other two directors that I’ve worked with for two years, I know their hearts. Director Hanson has four children in our district, so she absolutely has this passion to make sure that our district is doing right by students. I felt that the others did, too. Director Winegar has a child in kindergarten who just started at the district. I think she has an investment to make sure that we’re doing well. I think Director Williams — she has students in charter schools, not district-run schools — I think she has that investment in wanting us to do well. I can’t say that they’re not feeling that, but I think for some reason they have felt such pressure from their campaign to make decisions fast and I think that’s what’s really caused the angst. You can’t make fast decisions when you’re impacting 64,000 kids. You have to be thoughtful and go slow. I think that’s where things have gone off the rails. They feel pressure by the people that have supported them to do things fast as opposed to doing things well.”


Do you believe the other board members consider the students and teachers when making their fast decisions?

“I don’t want to speak for them, because I truly am baffled. Even after talking with one of them at length, I’m really not understanding. I would tell you that every director is doing what they feel is in the best interest of the district. I don’t think there’s any director that’s up there thinking ‘I want to do something bad, or I want to do something that is negative towards any of our students.’ I think everybody has the same intent, we just have differing opinions about how we maintain stability for our kids. I think right now the thing is they don’t see that this is creating instability. But, I can’t speak for them. That’s the question we’re going to ask tonight.”


What is the monetary impact of having a superintendent leave?

“The immediate monetary fact is that whenever a superintendent leaves under these circumstances, you have to provide them with a severance package; dollars that go above and beyond what their contract obligates them to have, as far as a salary. Then, there’s the tremendous cost of doing another superintendent search. This last superintendent search we did, just the logistics of doing that alone cost right around $40,000. That adds up real fast and then there’s the cost of what happens in the turn-over of our employees. Every time you have to start a new teacher there’s a big cost on the front end of orienting and getting that teacher ready to teach in our schools. That cost I can’t even really give you a ballpark figure. There is financial loss, whenever these kinds of circumstances occur. It’s significant enough that it should discourage us from going in that direction.”


Is the board still paying out Dr. Tucker’s contract?

“No. Dr. Tucker voluntarily resigned because he needed to be close to his family. His mother was ill and unfortunately his mother passed away a couple of months after he resigned. There is absolutely no additional payout for his contract. We both — the board and Tucker — both came to the agreement that we would let him out of his contract without any further obligation. He had no further obligation to the district when he submitted his resignation.”


What would the timeline on getting a replacement for Wise look like?

“Typically, what occurs is the superintendent leaves in the middle of the year. We have what’s called a succession plan that’s already been identified. So, the two deputy superintendents would serve as the interim superintendents until the board got clearer about their timelines. The board would need to begin to define their timeline for when they would want a new superintendent to be selected and put in place. When we did the recent superintendent search we were already working with the company in January to get the superintendent identified, so we’re already way behind that timeline, which was pretty rushed because Dr. Tucker left us in September, so it would be a lot of work to get done quickly.”


What direction do you think the Board of Education is heading in?

“I think we have some very diverse perspectives, which is good. I think the board represents nearly every different perspective you can imagine. Whether it’s me, who is a grandparent or Director Winegar, who’s just starting her child in school. I think that direction is good, that the board has diverse perspectives. I think that if we can get to a place where we can actually function as a board by following our policies, doing it in public and making sure that we’re respectful and civil and think we’ll be in a good palace where we can say whatever comes out of the board is truly representative of the entire community. That’s my hope. My fear is that we’re just going to operate as two boards; a majority board and a minority board. And that’s what it’s feeling like right now.”


While each member of the Douglas County School District Board of Education — Directors Ray, Myers, Peterson, Winegar, Meek and Williams — was contacted by CV Student Media, they either did not respond or referred our journalists to the Public Relations Officer for the district as of the time this article was published.